The Passionate Transitory

Sam Riviere 
81 Austerities
Faber £9.99

William Letford 
Bevel
Carcanet £9.95

Oli Hazzard 
Between Two Windows
Carcanet £9.95

Andrew Bailey 
Zeal
Enitharmon £9.99

 

Internet, you have ruined poetry. Must I list the ways? The slowness of print used to mean being a poet came with a built-in time delay, or at least as long as it took to crack the Neasden Poetry Gazette, whereas self-published status is now never more than a WordPress account away. Print journals have died in great numbers and not been replaced. Instant connection with our peers is not just possible, it’s obligatory. Poets you’ve never met leave comments on your Facebook page, making it too awkward to review their books. People even put poems on Facebook these days, in what might be the single ugliest way yet invented of presenting the written word. The internet is also the natural home of the humble-brag, as poets tweet and blog an acceptance here, a residency there, unendingly, in ways that have not escaped the attention of Sam Riviere’s caustic satire. His 81 Austerities is a response to our recessionary times, but the poetry PR bazaar it attacks is one market that never seems to dip. ‘In 3 years I have been awarded / £48,000 by various funding bodies’ begins ‘Crisis Poem’ (in need of an update since Riviere’s Forward Prize win, I assume), while ‘Adversity in the Arts’ bemoans the impossibility of keeping up with his outstanding contemporaries:

it’s no exaggeration to say that

there are not enough minutes

in the day to give each the attention

they undoubtedly deserve

Have you ever been a twenty-something literary wannabe who thinks being a bored layabout is not just a job but a vocation? If so, 81 Austerities is the book for you, or rather this is a brilliant portrait of the culture of stoned anomie that has led us to our current condition.

Riviere’s deadpan style has a marvellous way of standing things on their head, making the minor inconvenience of the internet connection going down sound like a full-blown existential crisis, while an attempt at reconnecting with a radical conscience (‘The arts must be forced underground’) is met with a deflating ‘cheers’ in square brackets, and an awkward postscript at the back of the book, in the style of a creative writing student’s self-reflexive commentary. The spectre of the creative writing industry, and its commodification of poetry, looms large. One of the disturbing and brilliant things about Riviere is that he is simultaneously a product of this world and exactly the scabrous heretic it needs. Is this a contradiction? As Sideshow Bob says in an old episode of The Simpsons, ‘I’m aware of the irony of appearing on TV to decry it, so don’t bother pointing that out’. Riviere’s position also exposes him to the irony of basic misunderstanding; reviewing 81 Austeritiesfor The Guardian, Ruth Padel worried that readers might think he was ‘using social networking to push his poetry’ in ways that are ‘superficial and repetitive’. As I hope I’ve made clear, I read 81 Austerities very differently.

There is something beautifully jaded about these poems (‘Bless the powers that have taken / our grievances away from us’, as he exhaustedly writes in ‘The Mysterious Lives of the Stars’), but in a way that manages to emerge on the far side of its disillusionment and reconnect with something like the postmodern sublime in all its god-awfulness. Yes indeed, maybe the junkie on the street in ‘Chocolate Milk’ was one of those ‘really attractive’ ones you see, and perhaps ‘Clones’ is just the poem we’ve been waiting for to do justice to the wonder of internet porn. Perhaps I’m wrong about all this and the joke is on me. In which case, the biggest joke of all will be that this book has managed to restore my faith in verse satire. Riviere is a natural successor to Peter Reading, and 81 Austerities is the beautiful bucket of Technicolor sick our times require.

In The Failure of Conservatism in Modern British Poetry, Andrew Duncan confidently asserts that accent does not matter in poetry. I wouldn’t be so sure. When I used to teach Tom Leonard to students in Yorkshire I read his poem ‘The Six O’Clock News’ in a dodgy Glasgow accent, after which we would discuss questions of language and authority. The poem inhabits the disjunction between the words in my mouth, a Glaswegian’s mouth, the newsreader’s mouth. The accent is the point. But there is a temptation (brilliantly skewered in his poem ‘Fathers and Sons’) for the non-Glaswegian reader to assume Leonard is somehow putting it on, that the literary use of Scots is all just a performance for someone else’s benefit. So while William Letford’s enjoyable debut Bevel is distinguished by a vigorous use of Scots, and while some of his poems directly address the gap between writing and speech, leaning too heavily on this side of the book might give the impression that Letford is programmatic or po-faced about it, which he isn’t. He no more ‘uses’ Scots in these poems than he uses the full stop or the semi-colon.

Any rush to brand him ‘down-to-earth’, however, is instantly stymied by his working as a roofer. My grandfather worked as a painter with Brendan Behan, and I am confidently informed that Behan was the first (and perhaps the only) person to enter The Irish Times from a scaffold, file his copy, and leave by the window through which he’d come in. That certainly puts a new spin on metaphors of ‘access’ to written culture. Bevel too is full of poems that come at us from unexpected angles. ‘Thurs hunnurs a burds oan the roofs’ is a beautiful piece of sound poetry, Basil Bunting’s ‘A thrush in the syringa sings’ by way of a Scottish-inflected Tom Raworth: ‘here huw chouf wouf wee robin rid tit peejin breesty lovey dovey’. ‘T-shirt wrapped around my head’ transports us to Pharaonic Egypt, and ‘Working away’ extracts something deliciously sensual from a knife slicing into mouldy tomatoes.

Work is a constant, but not just in the roofing poems. ‘We must labour to be beautiful’, Yeats wrote at the end of ‘Adam’s Curse’, and Letford conveys very well the paradoxical effort required to inhabit what Patrick Kavanagh termed the ‘passionate transitory’. He writes wittily about being head-butted (‘i know i went somewhere / because i had to come back’), and the genial pleasures of sex and drink. ‘In the mountains of northern Italy’ blows the roof off Letford’s world altogether, with its celebration of five hundred years of a chapel open directly onto the heavens (‘The locals laugh at the Sistine Chapel and call it the coffin lid’). On the whole then, Bevel is very much a young man’s book. Its preference for short lyrics and prose fragments (not quite prose poems) gives the whole an insouciant, throwaway feel. A few of the poems towards the end indulge the throwaway a little too generously, and need more elaboration to achieve even the status of that ‘passionate transitory’. But whatever the faults of Bevel, preciousness is hardly among them. ‘A poem / Does not belong to the poet’, announces its final couplet. Like that Italian chapel, these poems are open to the elements and anything else passing by.

One theory for Hugh MacDiarmid’s evolution from the short lyrics of Sangschaw and Penny Wheep to the largely unreadable long poems of his later decades was that he fell down a tram stairwell, landing on his head. Letford’s line of business gives him all too many opportunities for this, but delicate though many of these poems are, they are hard-headed productions too. Take ‘For the Journey’, for instance, a wonderful poem about a man struggling and failing to lift a boulder. His attempt is doomed but entirely necessary, for reasons you’ll have to read the poem to discover. Bevel suggests William Letford should be a dab hand at lifting any poetic burden he fancies.

‘The Inability to Recall the Precise Word for Something’ would seem like a handicap for a writer but, as Oli Hazzard’s poem of that name suggests, this need not be the case. It consists of a page- long list of definitions for unusual words with the words themselves removed. Where neologisms are concerned, word strictly follows need. ‘Sandwich’ is slightly handier to say on a repeated basis than ‘piece of meat between two buttered slices of bread’, for instance. Hazzard’s poem leaves me hankering for a world in which the single-word forms of ‘A surgical sponge accidentally left inside a patient’s body’, ‘The sensation that someone is mentally undressing you’, ‘The smell of rain on dry ground’ and (giving the collection its title) ‘The space between two windows’, were in routine and regular use.

There is a poem in Between Two Windows called ‘As Necessity Requires’, and Hazzard’s gaudy and floribund meditations may strike readers as ‘necessities’ in the same way that collecting expensive first editions of Raymond Roussel or understanding the mathematical diagrams in Wittgenstein are necessities. The trick would be to persuade sceptics that the pleasures of Hazzard’s poetry work are emotional rather than merely highbrow-dilettantish, and that we the readers are the people he means when he asks:

Who endures such oneiric

phenomena when there’s a world outside

to be civilized?

If many of Hazzard’s poems are oneiric soliloquies, their interior paramour is unquestionably Wallace Stevens. ‘Every day I celebrate / Wallace Stevens’ poem “The Public Square’’ ‘, he declares, before launching into ‘Two Versions of “Fabliau of Florida” ‘. This is a high-risk strategy, but these are not poems as fan- fiction, and sometimes the best way to digest an influence (think of Mark Ford and John Ashbery) is to externalize it as blatantly as possible. There is a larger problem with Stevens, though. Almost sixty years since his death, he remains a somewhat disreputable presence in British poetry. Eliot famously blocked him, and while Americans are happy to follow Stevens Boulevard to Ashbery Freeway and beyond, Irish and British poets tend to me more circumspect. In Hazzard County, glorious excess is the order of the day; not content with Stevensian rhodomontade (‘geisterfahrer’, ‘pescatarian’, ‘lèche-vitrines’), Hazzard lets the letters of the alphabet off their leash too to go walkabout in ‘Home Poems’. ‘Moving In’, ‘A Few Precepts’ and ‘Three Summaries’ are lush, seductive and funny poems. The last of these pre-empts readerly disorientation with a series of cod nostrums: ‘Ignorance’, it assures us, ‘is the cornerstone / of a healthy tourist-guide relationship’.

Hazzard writes songs for the palm at the end of the mind, does skilful and lovely things with pantoums, palindromes and sestinas, but all in the service of a dark and unnerving vision of language. Rimbaud pops up in ‘Old-Fashioned Uncouth Measures’, and in his more outré visions Hazzard transports us to the territory of that arch-poet’s Illuminations, perhaps the fons et origo of Stevens’s and Ashbery’s worlds. ‘Sphinx’ ends with a ‘slippage’ of light:

as though

it were possible to look through the glowing pink

of your ears and envisage only sun after sun after sun.

To paraphrase Beckett on Denis Devlin, Hazzard’s is a mind aware of its luminaries. This is a bold and striking book. (The words from earlier are ‘gossipyboma’, ‘gymnophoria’, ‘petrichor’ and ‘interfenestration’, by the way, in case you were wondering.)

William Carlos Williams professed not to like long lines; they made him ‘nervous’, he said. Two poems, ‘Hydrotherapy’ and ‘Lodestar, Polestar’, from the beginning of Andrew Bailey’s Zeal, illustrate the risks of long versus short lines. A lightly numinous aura surrounds many of Bailey’s poems, and in the short lines of ‘Hydrotherapy’ an image of water drops rises (which is to say falls) to a delicately rendered metaphor of prayer, proceeding from image to image like a water boatman testing the surface it walks on. In ‘Lodestar, Polestar’, by contrast, without the lines being particularly long, something conspires against and coagulates the would-be visionary moment. The poem elegizes Peter Redgrove, whose presence hangs heavy over Zeal, and pantheistically inscribes him in the stars, the rain and the plants, so that:

we share him,

share his light, which holds still to that star,

about which other stars, that are, as we are, him, rotate.

It’s the commas round ‘him’ that really do for that last line. There is a feeling of overload, of blockage, that works against the would-be mood of cosmic release.

The best poems in Zeal ground their more mantic side in Anglo-Saxon translations, the language of augury and herbalists’ lore. There is perhaps no poetic pleasure more decadent than listing names of plants, but ‘Herb Robert’ is a charming piece, while ‘Ogres’ (an unrhymed villanelle?) has two memorably eccentric refrains: ‘And there there is a lemon that contains / the souls of all the ogres in Ceylon’. It would be wrong to belabour the extent of Bailey’s debt to Redgrove, but when ‘Succubus’ begins ‘Woke to a gathering thightaut clamp of orgasm’, we should fear that an excess of gothic zeal is about to drain the vital fluids out of the poetry too. This would indeed be to find ourselves in a ‘library with no doors out’. I could also have done without the poem about Pope John Paul II. At such moments there is too much folderol, too much flummery. It is no accident that the best poem in Zeal is the lovely ‘Ruin’, much of which consists of fragments and gaps. It ends:

that is a noble thing.

a house ________

a city ________

________ ________.

Sometimes the poetry lies as much in the spaces in between as in the words themselves.